Adventure, Asia

Taking the high road

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The Karakoram Highway was one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century. Today the world’s highest paved international road makes one of Asia’s most pulsating bike rides. 

Danger and beauty often go hand in hand. For decades, the Karakoram Highway has tempted thrill-seeking cyclists with a route that snakes in between giant glaciers, scenic valleys and towering peaks. The landscape is remote, raw and extremely challenging. Of the world’s 14 mountains that climb above 8,000 metres, the road gives access to five. It can be narrow and unstable, clinging desperately onto the mountain outlines. For the careless, a fatal abyss awaits. Some have seen wreckages lying below. For the risk-averse, the area’s proneness to earthquakes, floods and landslides probably doesn’t help. “It’s probably one of the most beautiful roads in the world,” says Marc Leaderman, head of group tours at Wild Frontier, who run trips along the highway. “But also one of the scariest.”

The number of lives lost in building the road remains unclear. During construction, from 1958 to 1978, mud slides and avalanches posed deadly risks to workers. Given its 1,300-kilometre length, and the geology of its route from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, to the city of Kashgar, on China’s western tip, it’s remarkable that it was built at all. Large monuments now loom over the road in remembrance of the fallen. The Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), a branch arm of the Pakistani army, which supplied many of the workers, states that 404 people died. Other reports say 800 Pakistanis and 80 Chinese. Another myth claims a life was lost for each mile of the road.

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The project sprung out of an initiative in 1958 to build an all-weather jeep road from the village of Karora, north of Islamadad, to the very northern parts of Pakistan. It was named the Indus Valley Road. By 1965, close to its completion, the working troops had to withdraw amid Pakistan’s war with India. When work resumed in 1966, Pakistan extended its remit to China in a sign of improved transnational relations (China call it ‘the friendship way’). And so more than 20,000 workers, most from Pakistan, some from China, started blasting and bulldozing their way through the unforgiving terrain. They used 8,000 tonnes of explosives, 80,000 tonnes of cement. Progress was often hampered by landslides and glacier movements. But eventually, in an extraordinary engineering achievement, the road was completed in 1978. It opened to nationals in 1982, and to foreigners in 1986.

An international link would always benefit Pakistan and China. Although strategic military importance played a part in its inception, vast amounts of food, merchandise and goods also cross the border, particularly from China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region. While the road follows parts of the old Silk Route (on which Kashgar was crucial), donkeys, camels and caravans have been replaced with trucks, jeeps and minibuses.

But for all that has changed, construction workers remain a common sight. The landscape is constantly afflux; earthquakes and avalanches leave the road in constant need of maintenance. “It’s an on-going war between man and nature,” Leaderman says. For travellers, the road is best visited in spring or early autumn: snow often blocks the road in the winter, while in July and August, heavy rain increases the chances of landslides. “There are some steeps drops, some patches of road in a bad state, there is always the risk of earth slides,” says Leaderman. “It’s definitely not a road for the faint hearted.”

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Not everyone is put off. Many arrive to take in the scenery, on bicycles or organised busses. The reasons lie along the highway; glaciers, mountain peaks and steep valleys that represent giant playgrounds for climbers and hikers. Many start in Islamabad. En route, they find the Batura glacier, one of the world’s longest valley glaciers; the dreamy blue lake of Little Karakul; and the scenic Hunza valley. Small villages offer local food, down-to-earth hostels and decent hospitality (the attraction, says Leaderman, is “a combination of the scenery and the local people”). After combating dusty roads, thin air and steep ascends, you arrive at the Khunjerab Pass on the Chinese border. Here, you find the highest concentration of mountain peaks and glaciers anywhere on earth. The pass’s altitude is 4,730 metres. By comparison, Mont Blanc is 4,810 metres.

New challenges have emerged along the road, both for residents and travellers. On 4 January 2010, a giant landslide blocked a large river some 15 kilometres upstream from Karimabad, close to the border with China. It formed a giant lake that submerged the highway and six nearby villages. 19 residents were killed. By June, what was now named the Attabad Lake had grown more than 100 metres deep and 22 kilometres long. It remains there to this day.

Yet traffic is still intact. In a complex system, passengers and goods are transported across the lake by boats, many which are operated by locals. Cyclists can still pass through, while bus operators must switch vehicles. “It’s a bit more of an adventure, it’s a bit more hassle and it takes more time,” says Leaderman. “But it’s still very much open for business.”

Photos: mamahoohooba, Tracing Tea [both via Shutterstock.com], Keith Tan.

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